Jordan king says Assad's days are numbered

Jordan king says Assad's days are numbered
King Abdullah II of Jordan listens during an interview with The Associated Press at the Royal Palace, in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday March, 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Yousef Allan, Jordanian Royal Palace)
AMMAN, Jordan (AP) - Jordan's king warned Wednesday that a jihadi state could emerge on his northern border in Syria with Islamic extremists trying to establish a foothold in the neighboring country.

King Abdullah II, a key U.S.-ally, told The Associated Press in an interview that in his view, Syrian President Bashar Assad was beyond rehabilitation and it was only a matter of time before his authoritarian regime collapses. But he said he opposed foreign military intervention.

"The most worrying factors in the Syrian conflict are the issues of chemical weapons, the steady flow or sudden surge in refugees and a jihadist state emerging out of the conflict," the king said.

He said it costs his cash-strapped nation $550 million annually to host an estimated 500,000 Syrian refugees - about nine percent of Jordan's population of 6 million. He said most have crossed in the last 12 months.

The government says they have strained the country's meager resources, including health care and education, and forced the budget deficit to a record high of $3 billion last year.

There is also concern that agents linked to Assad or his militant Lebanese ally Hezbollah has formed sleeper cells in Jordan to destabilize the country.

Nevertheless, Abdullah said he was against any foreign military intervention in Syria, including setting up a safe zone for the refugees inside the country.

"Jordan works within Arab consensus and international consensus and legalities. I am totally against sending Jordanian troops inside Syria and this has always been Jordanian policy. I am also against any foreign military intervention in Syria."

Previously, Abdullah warned that Syria's chemical weapons could fall into the hand of the militants, who are seeking to establish presence in Syria. From there, they could be used against Syria's neighbors, including Jordan - a strong U.S. ally that signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

He warned that radicalization of Syria, together with the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, could ignite the entire region.

"Another extremely dangerous scenario is the fragmentation of Syria, which would trigger sectarian conflicts across the region for generations to come," he said. "And also the huge risk that Syria could become a regional base for extremist and terrorist groups, which we are already seeing establishing firm footholds in some areas," the king added.

"All these are extremely dangerous threats. I have been warning against them all, especially the chemical weapons threat, since the beginning of the crisis," he said.

As for the humanitarian emergency, the king said assistance is direly needed not only to the host countries, like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey but also inside Syria, so that "hearts and minds can be won before extremists fill the vacuum left by a failed Syrian state and mass exoduses are prevented."

He said faced with all these threats, Jordan is working on "contingencies to protect our population and borders, in self-defense." He declined to elaborate.

But government officials and Jordan-based Western diplomats have said that Jordan has been shopping around for Patriot missiles to be stationed on its northern border, should tensions across the frontier escalate.

Abdullah appealed to the international community to "to catch up and support Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to cover the increasing costs of hosting Syrian refugees."

He said that if the conflict escalated further, as is widely expected, he could see the number of refugees almost double over the next six to eight months.

He said Jordan continues to exert its utmost "diplomatic efforts to assist in bridging gaps in the international community so that an agreement can be reached on an inclusive political transition that preserves the territorial integrity and unity of Syria."

Asked if the Assad regime could still survive, Abdullah said: "I believe we are past that point, too much destruction, too much blood."

However, he said that was ultimately something for the Syrian people to determine.

"The key question is whether Syria will plunge into chaos or there will be a transition, and what kind of transition," he said.

"For the sake of Syria, the region and the international community, we should all work toward an immediate inclusive transition, where each group in Syrian society feels that it has a stake in the country's future," including Assad's ruling Alawite minority.

On other topics, Abdullah said the start of President Barack Obama's visit to the region opens a "window of opportunity" for restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The tour includes stops in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

"I see a window of opportunity to restart negotiations on the basis of a two-state solution, which is the only formula," he said.

"First, we have a second-term U.S. president. Second, the historic U.N. vote upgrading the status of Palestine reflected a fresh international will," he said.

He said the Arab Spring uprisings added urgency to resuming the peace process.

"The Arab Spring is first and foremost a cry for dignity, justice and freedom, which only a just and real peace can bring."

He called on the new Israeli government "to seize on this fast closing window and to act quickly and decisively for the sake of a just and a lasting peace."

Abdullah said Jordan has a lot at stake from the final status negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, especially on issues related to their common border with the kingdom, the fate of Jerusalem - where Jordan's peace treaty with Israel allows it to be the custodian of Christian and Muslim holy shrines in East Jerusalem - and the fate of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Roughly half of Jordan's 6 million people are of Palestinian origin.

"Achieving the two-state solution is part of our national strategic interest and key to stability in our region," Abdullah said.

"This is why we have always worked and will continue to work as hard as we can toward this goal. We have been doing our homework, together with like-minded countries in our region," Europe, Russia, the U.N. and the United States.

He said Washington's leadership "is vital to resuming meaningful negotiations. Our job is to ensure that the U.S. does not have to do the heavy lifting by itself, that we collectively do something differently and urgently that re-launches final status negotiations so that we do not miss an increasingly narrowing opportunity to silence the rallying call for violence and extremism in this region and beyond."